Keep hopes in check for U.S.

rseibel@macon.comJune 12, 2014 

Brazil Soccer WCup Brazil Croatia

Brazilian soccer fans get ready for the start of the group A World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia, the opening game of the tournament, in the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, June 12, 2014.

FELIPE DANA — AP

So the World Cup is here. And we’re all supposed to stop what we are doing and follow this thing for a month, right?

OK, so I’m not the biggest soccer fan out there. Blame that on dealing with too many soccer people through the years who believed in browbeating non-fans, forcing the sport down people’s throats. Those soccer people often talked a big game when it came to the World Cup, promising big things out of the American side, only to see the U.S. fail miserably. See 1998 and 2006.

That said, I’m not exactly disinterested in the World Cup, either. The U.S. soccer community has matured in recent years, generating support by putting a solid product on the field. Soccer, both in terms of the national team and MLS, is now willing to be judged on merit instead of entitlement. And the product isn’t bad, at all.

The trick this time will be to see improvement in the U.S. side despite an unfavorable draw.

The Americans landed in one of the most difficult groups this time around, a group that includes Ghana (which knocked the U.S. out of the past two World Cups), Portugal (a team led by one of the top players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, not to be confused with the former Brazilian star Ronaldo) and Germany (a team that usually goes deep into World Cup play).

Just getting out of group play will be a tall task for the U.S., whose head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, said Wednesday that “it is just not realistic” for the Americans to win the World Cup.

Klinsmann wasn’t trying to undercut his team. He went with a young roster this time around in his first World Cup appearance as the U.S. head coach, aiming to build experience for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As difficult of a draw as the U.S. received, it wasn’t a bad call. Instead of a cocky “we want to make this round” goal, he’s taking a smart “let’s play and see what happens” approach.

“You have to be realistic,” Klinsmann said in a news conference Wednesday, as reported by cbssports.com. “Every year, we are getting stronger. We don’t look at ourselves as underdogs. We are not. We are going to take the game to Ghana, and they will take it to us (in Monday’s U.S. opener), and it will be an exciting game, and then we go from there.”

So which teams are worth watching? Here are three pool play contests to watch:

Spain vs. Netherlands, 3 p.m., Friday: The defending World Cup champ against Team Orange in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final. Despite European teams’ struggles in the Western Hemisphere in past World Cups, I like Spain’s chances. But teams from the Netherlands have a history of hanging around and sneaking up on others. They went into extra time four years ago, and this one should be just as good.

England vs. Italy, 6 p.m., Saturday: With fellow Group D member Uruguay on the rise and playing on its home continent, this could wind up as an elimination contest of sorts for two traditional World Cup powers.

Brazil vs. Mexico, 3 p.m., Tuesday: Brazil is a heavy favorite to win the World Cup on its home soil. Mexico needed outside help in the final moments of the final round of qualifying just to make the World Cup. Mexico just might have something to prove in this one. Or it could be a 5-0 blowout in favor of the Brazilians.

I’m predicting victory for Spain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brazil runs away with this. And I’m predicting four points (a win and a tie) for the U.S. in pool play -- maybe not enough to advance, but not a complete wipeout, either.

Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or rseibel@macon.com

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